The Courtier

by Linda Bindner

Diego de la Vega was amazed at what he found himself contemplating.

What if..? Dare he think it? What if he courted Victoria as himself?

Just the thought sent shivers of dread through him, even though he was in the safe interior of Zorro's secret cave. It was well known, almost indisputable, to the whole pueblo, that Victoria was in love with Zorro. Their romance had practically become part of the legend. She was his, he was hers, and neither of them was bound to have a change of heart any time soon.

But time was the most important part of the equation here, Diego admitted to himself. It had been months since Zorro had proposed to Victoria, months since she had agreed to become his wife. And still the tyranny of the pueblo went on. Zorro may not ever be free from his mask to marry, and he and Victoria had been waiting to marry for a long time. Was she getting as tired of the wait as Diego was?

He also admitted finally that he was getting tired of not having her to come home to. He was growing older, and wanted to settle down with a wife, not have these clandestine moments grabbed here and there. The sensation was suddenly so strong, the want almost overpowered him to become a need. He needed to have a normal life with the woman he loved.

But what about Zorro? Could he continue to ride as the masked bandit while being married to Victoria? What would he do if she found out the truth?

This was all assuming that he would win her affections, something not likely to happen, Diego honestly noted to himself. Her emotions were as volatile as she was, and right now she was so strongly linked to the masked outlaw that Diego would have a hard time breaking through that barrier. Any man would have a hard time!

But that's what bothered Diego the most. He was worried, had been for a long time, that some unsuspecting male would come along, see Victoria's beauty for what it was, woo her, and poof, Zorro could literally kiss Victoria goodbye as the complete stranger won the day. He remembered how he'd felt when Victoria had tried to marry Juan Ortiz many years before: his heart had been in his throat for half a day. He didn't want to go through that agony again with a stranger. The idea was a very real possibility and utterly terrifying. It made Diego sweat in the middle of the night with nightmares of grandiose proportions, and haunted him every time he entered the tavern.

Was Victoria getting tired of waiting? Could the dreaded scenario of the invisible stranger be more possible than even he might predict?

There was only one way to find out for sure, and that was to ask her. He was getting tired of the nightmare, the worry about a possible stranger winning Victoria for himself. Diego let his legs drop to the floor from the worktable stool that he had dragged over when his contemplations began. Frightened practically out of his wits, he was still determined to set these fears to rest, and there was no time like the present. With a resolve as hard as the steel blade he often fought with, he walked out of the cave, intent on taking lunch in town.

* * *

He wasn't the only one with that intent; everybody was eating out and the tavern was full. He would have preferred the privacy of an empty tavern, but then, he admitted, he would always prefer privacy. The bravado of Zorro answered some need deep inside him to let the drama 'hang out,' as the saying went, but in reality Diego was an intensely private individual who always preferred to be alone. He only hoped that his idiosyncrasy wouldn't bother Victoria, who, as the owner of the one public gathering spot in Los Angeles, was necessarily always surrounded by people.

But Diego determined not to take on problems that didn't exist yet, and to concentrate on the reality that he knew. As he sauntered into the tavern accompanied by his father and Felipe, he wondered how best to ask if she was tired of waiting for Zorro to fulfill his promise.

Victoria was behind the green bar when they entered, pouring drinks for somebody. She looked beautiful in a fitted brown shirt and a new skirt of flowered brown, with her hair swept back to reveal her high, creamy forehead. No one else seemed to notice Victoria's shining beauty, and he was grateful for that. At least he didn't appear to have any but the obvious competition.

Let's sit over there, said Alejandro, pointing to an empty table, then weaving towards it before Diego had even had the chance to answer. Felipe followed without delay, and it was clear that Diego was expected to pursue the same course. Only Diego hesitated for a second.

Don Alejandro raised his eyebrow in his son's direction.

Diego held up one finger, glad that his father hadn't spoken aloud his expectations for Diego to follow him unquestioningly. A spoken command would have been much harder to countermand, and Diego was jumpy enough already with the thought of asking Victoria where her heart truly lay. He didn't need familial entanglements right now, too.

His mind a jumble of half formed thoughts, Diego strolled up to the bar. Hola, Victoria, he said, and his voice only squeaked a bit.

Victoria looked up and smiled. She hadn't noticed the squeak. Hola, Don Diego. Is there something I can get for you?

Oh, no. Father, Felipe and I are just here for lunch. As is everybody else in the pueblo, I see. Diego gave a cursory glance around the establishment, taking in the throng of local caballeros bent on eating their midday meal at the tavern. Everybody's here, it seems.

She poured a glass of juice and handed it to him. Sí. It has been a busy day. It makes me think that something is going on, but that's not the case today. Even the Alcalde's out of town. I think everybody just wants to... what is that saying?

Smell the roses? he supplied for her, still searching his mind for a plausible way to ask his question.

Victoria's smile grew wider. That's it. Trust you to know. It's almost as if we are expecting a visit from Zorro. But I know that isn't true.

Diego was astonished at her opening onto the subject he was fixed on discussing. It was almost as if she could read his mind. Disappointed? he asked casually.

Not really. She leaned thoughtfully against the green bar. It's not like he stays long when he does come to town.

It sounded as if she was growing tired of the wait. What? You can't expect us to believe that he has lost some of his dashing appeal, Diego shamelessly commented.

Oh, no. She smiled, then grimaced. But I am getting tired of waiting all the time.

Diego was so floored that he almost dropped the glass of juice he was holding. You're tired of waiting? he asked, much more direct in his surprise.

She smiled again and wiped at a spill of liquid on her countertop. What girl wouldn't get tired? But Zorro is the most honorable man around: he'll keep his promise to me. She sounded as if she was trying to convince herself as well as him.

Diego nonchalantly asked, What if his crusade against oppression never ends and he can't take off the mask?

Victoria considered with a cocked head. Then I guess I'll become an old maid and never marry.

What if somebody else comes along? Diego was careful to be impassive as he took a swallow of juice. It wouldn't do for her to become suspicious of him now.

Victoria leaned her head the other way, thinking. Finally she was forced to admit, Nobody else ever has come along. I don't know, Diego.

Diego wanted to shout at her sudden disclosure, for where there was doubt, there was hope. But he was careful not to let his emotions show. Surely you've had some proposals of marriage?

Oh, I've had proposals, she admitted, her smile now rueful, but nothing serious, nothing that went beyond a desire for my money.

There are men who want you for your money? Diego asked, clearly surprised by this.

Yes. As one of the only female property owners in town, I have to expect some proposals because of supposed wealth.

But you've always said no?

I've always said no, she said with a nod.

Diego shrugged. Well, if you're worried about becoming an old maid, say yes the next time a proposal comes your way.

Victoria smiled indulgently. Oh Diego, you don't just marry any man who asks. I want to be courted first. I want to fall in love again. She giggled rather helplessly.

Then you're not opposed to a courtship?

Victoria thought about that for a moment, her smile still intact. No, I guess not, but it would have to be from the right man.

And what about Zorro? Diego asked.

She seemed to wilt a bit. If you must know, Zorro's promise is getting a little old, and we're not getting any younger. Maybe for the right person... She didn't finish what she was thinking.

Diego couldn't believe what he was hearing. He couldn't help but to ask again, stressing the first word in his nervousness, Are you getting tired of waiting? He had to know.

No. Yes. Oh, I don't know, she replied, speaking slowly, as if she was truly considering his words. She straightened up, embarrassed at where the conversation had gone, but clearly thinking about his subject nonetheless. Now I have customers to attend to. I'll let you know what I think when I think it, she promised with a smile. What did you have in mind for lunch?

* * *

Diego smiled to himself on the ride home. That had gone well, if he did say so himself. Victoria had spoken to him before they left the tavern; she'd thought about his suggestion, and decided that, yes, she was amenable to a courtship, as long as it was with the right man.

The sudden announcement astonished Don Alejandro, even while it sent tingles of hope and concern up Diego's spine. It was all he could do to look uninterested. Oh, it's nothing, Father. Just a comment on Zorro's promise, Diego had said by way of explanation, even while his blood sang from her answer.

Surely you're not thinking of starting a courtship of your own for Victoria? Alejandro asked, sounding concerned.

Diego did his best to appear appalled, even as he was glad his father had spoken aloud, as if he'd given his son the idea. Of course not, Father.

Well, good, Alejandro answered hesitantly.

I was just curious, Diego insisted, choosing not to comment on his father's tone.

Alejandro nodded, but also chose not to speak any more on the subject. He considered the point closed, but Diego thought about the topic the rest of the way home.

As soon as he could without appearing rude, Diego slipped to his room so he could be alone to think. So it appeared that Victoria was open to somebody else. On one hand, that made him happy because he might be the 'right man.' On the other hand, so might anybody else, and Diego found his worries heightened yet again. But still, it was bad news for Zorro even if it was good news for Diego. She had as much as said that she was available once more, promise or not, and Diego felt that such news did not bode well for Zorro.

Would he be forced to give up Victoria as Zorro so that he could court her as himself? Even the thought sent chills coursing through his body, and he immediately broke out in a cold sweat. Yet, if Zorro ended their relationship with Victoria, how could Diego guarantee that she would fall in love with him? Should he tell her everything and hope for the best if she didn't fall in love with Diego? He wasn't sure, but he didn't want to contemplate such a break-up scene. It would be horrible.

He was right. It was horrible.

Breaking off their romance while visiting with her that night was the most unpleasant thing he'd ever had to live through. Even though it was for a good reason, he didn't think he could do it if not for her help in the matter. As it was, the scene in the kitchen was fairly awful.

Zorro had to be convincing, even if he had to fake pain and heartache. But he found that he didn't have to fake anything. The pain and heartache were plenty real enough.

She spoke her mind, encouraged by her conversation with Don Diego, using short words in her attempt to hide the discomfort that this was causing. He didn't have to do anything, as she did all the unpleasant work. Still, it was numbing. Zorro could only stare at her in seemed bewilderment when she declared that the promise he'd made and she'd lived on was past the breaking point and she wanted her freedom. Victoria, he breathed, hardly able to make his voice work while his heart thundered in his chest, do you know what you're saying?

Even he could hear her noisy swallow in the quiet kitchen. It did him no good to know that this was as hard for her as it was for him. I've been asked what I think about a courtship, and I can't even think if I'm still bound by your promise.

Asked? By whom? He knew perfectly well who had asked about her ideas on a courtship, but he had to make this breakup as real as possible. Asking only seemed natural.

She guiltily starting drying the dishes she had set out on her counter. I don't think that's any of your concern, she said, and Zorro couldn't deny that he was glad that she had refused to give any names; being angry at himself might be too much for him just now.

And my promise? His voice sounded too loud in the quiet kitchen. Though it was after closing time for the tavern, and any boarders were most likely asleep, getting caught now was not on his agenda for the night. Neither, it appeared, was a breakup. What about my promise?

Victoria paused in her wiping, a pained expression on her face. But she seemed determined. I'm not getting any younger, and neither are you. She took a deep breath, but refused to look into his eyes. Don't you think it's getting a little old?

Again, he could only ask in apparent bewilderment, What are you saying?

She no longer hesitated, but she still wouldn't look him in the eye. She blurted, I'm tired of waiting.

Zorro felt numb by now, even though he had planned this breakup himself. I see.

Victoria continued, And nothing new will happen as long as your fight goes on. Sometimes it seems that it will go on forever. I might never have the chance to get married at all.

Even though he had good reason, and even though he already knew her words before she spoke them, still his heart plunged to his toes. Without his Victoria, he didn't have a life. However, she knew that, and was still able to say this. What more could he do except leave with what dignity he could muster? But even he couldn't leave her so coldly. Nothing I can say will make you change your mind?

Victoria set down the plate she held and delicately twisted the towel in her hands. He longed to lift her face so that she could gaze into his eyes, but such an action was too tempting to lead to a kiss full of passion on his part, and he couldn't afford to waylay his cause by even a little bit. I'm very determined in this, she said.

He knew that once she'd made up her mind on something, there was no changing it. Until now, there had never been a need to attempt a change in her way of thinking. She had always agreed with him. But it was clear that she didn't agree anymore. I suppose I don't need to tell you that this will also put an end to our engagement?

Victoria still could not meet his gaze. Could not, or would not. Do you want your ring back?

Zorro had not contemplated that. He pictured hiding the ring in his room, and the concept sent new chills coursing through his blood. No, you keep it. That way you'll have it if you change your mind.

But it was your mother's, Victoria protested to the air in front of her.

No. You keep it to remember me by, he said again, all the while noticing how his hands burned to touch her soft arms and her cheeks and her hair... He clenched his hands until all he felt was the soft leather of his gloves. This is for good reason! he reminded himself. Goodbye, Victoria, he said aloud, his voice now barely above a whisper, and somehow he got out of the kitchen and stumbled past the guards. He remembered to wait until he was out of hearing range to whistle for Toronado, then he let the first tear slip through his lashes. This breakup might not be for real, but it sure felt real enough as his heart turned to a bitter knot in his chest. He couldn't bear the thought of doing this in actuality. His heart gave another painful twist. Now that the tears had started, there was no stopping the flood, and he softly cried all the way back to the cave. Without a doubt, and though it was for a good cause, that had been the hardest thing he'd ever had to live through.

* * *

So the breakup put a whole new spin on Diego's abrupt idea of courting Victoria as himself. He knew she was open to the idea of a courtship, and she and Zorro were having some... well, they were at an impasse, to be perfectly honest. It was up to him to decide what to do with this information.

He decided to wait a week, just to see if she would change her mind. Unknown to him, she received one proposal of marriage that week, but the fellow didn't have a chance since he didn't bother to take the time to give Victoria what she really wanted: a true courtship. The fellow went on his way, and Victoria grinned for a solid day while she thought over what she had said to Diego. She knew what she wanted, even if it made her cry herself to sleep for as many nights as Diego waited.

But one thing she didn't consider was that Diego also knew what she wanted. And he would be darned if he was going to completely lose Victoria. The very next week he put his knowledge to good use.

Taking a break from his labors as editor of The Guardian, Diego found himself in the plaza with nowhere he needed to be and nothing he needed to do. He idly watched Sergeant Mendoza walk across the plaza to the tavern, which in turn led his wandering eyes to the beautiful form of Victoria as she shook out her rag from the edge of her porch. Eying her thoughtfully, Diego for once didn't divert his eyes when she glanced his way. She returned his smile at his honest appraisal, and didn't appear surprised when he showed up at her bar. Women always seemed to notice when a man was interested.

He nonchalantly leaned his elbow on the green countertop, determined to enjoy his time with Victoria in between editing two new articles.

You got my column? she asked.

I found it right where you left it yesterday, under my door.

I'm never certain, she said. I don't know if I trust the citizens of Los Angeles not to become thieves in the night. Her voice held a hint of teasing in it.

Diego was a little surprised. I always lock the door, you know.

Yes. You're conscientious that way.

I would never let anything happen to yours or anybody's article.

I know. But it doesn't hurt to be certain. She dusted the countertop with her rag.

You know, Victoria, Diego began casually, the de Cristos are having a dinner party this Saturday that promises to be extremely boring, as there won't be anyone our age attending. Everybody who will be there will be so old. I wondered if you would like to join me?

Complete boredom? How can I turn it down? Victoria asked, and Diego wished he hadn't put it to her quite like that.

You know what I mean. Would you like to come?"

I do, and to save you from extreme boredom, I accept.

Her answer startled Diego, who had set himself up to take her rejection as best he could. More practiced with giving excuses than accepting graciously, he took her acquiescence a bit hesitantly. Then it's all right? I can count on your attendance?

She nodded, even when he made it official. That showed her openness to the idea. He said, Good. The party won't seem so boring if you're there. That was the whole truth, and he was able to infuse his answer with his honest opinion for a change. It was refreshing. Pick you up here at six?

Six, she nodded while repeating his question as a confirmation.

That's fine. Hopefully we won't miss dinner, but we'll miss all the conversation beforehand.

Is that the boring part? she wondered.

One of them, he told her, all the while pondering what was going through her analytical mind. She looked as if she was thinking something, and Diego couldn't help but wonder if she was contemplating Zorro just then. But he didn't ask, and she didn't tell. I look forward to it, he said sincerely.

So do I, she answered, surprising him again with her candid reply.

Now, it's back to The Guardian's articles for me. I'll see you then, he promised.

Adios, she called as he wove through the tavern's influx of customers and out the front doors.

He sighed with relief when he was certain he was out of her hearing. At least that was over! Never again would he have to ask her out for the first time.

Don Alejandro stopped in the library on his way to his room Saturday night. He wanted to freshen up and get dressed for the de Cristo's party to arrive in plenty of time to talk to his old friend, Don Emilio, before dinner. Diego, he said automatically, you should get ready abo... His admonishment died on his lips as he gazed at his son. Diego was already dressed in an off-white suit with black trim Alejandro had never seen him wear before, a silk necktie at his throat. Diego was never so well dressed for the de Cristo's dinner parties. Going somewhere? Although that didn't seem the case, as Diego was involved in another chess match with Felipe.

I thought we were going to the de Cristos for supper? Diego calmly moved his bishop. Inside, he was shaking with nerves. He'd never taken Victoria anywhere as himself before.

We are. Or, at least, I thought we were. Alejandro waved a hand at Diego's well-dressed figure. Are you going somewhere else?

Diego reluctantly imparted his plans. The de Cristos, only I'm taking Victoria. I hope you don't mind if I use the carriage?

Alejandro was stunned. Diego was actually going out? With Victoria? He recovered at the last minute. Who, me? No, I don't mind at all.

Good, was all Diego said.

Alejandro started for the side of the house and his room, then changed his mind and appeared in the library again. Diego, you're not thinking of... courting... Victoria, are you?

Here it comes, thought Diego, an entire evening of teasing. But he figured that it was time for the truth. Or at least part of it. Yes, he replied, though it took every ounce of courage in him to do so. You gave me the idea, he defended at his father's astonished expression, lying for hopefully the last time.

I did?

You did. On the ride home from town last week.

But you're more like a brother to her! Alejandro protested.

Diego glanced out the window to see a vaquero carefully pull at the rope he had around a young cow. Diego felt coerced, like that heifer. He decided yet again that part of the truth wouldn't harm him. He shook his head at his father's claims, suddenly serious, still staring out the window. I've been in love with Victoria since I came home from the University, he confessed quietly.

Alejandro was not so mild. Madrid? he asked, his voice exploding into the library. But that was years ago!

Diego nodded mutely, still gazing out the window. I know.

Alejandro was silent as he digested this bit of news. Does Victoria know?


Alejandro noticed Felipe sitting quietly, hardly looking surprised in his uncomfortable caballero clothes. Does Felipe know?


Alejandro looked astonished again. Felipe knows before your own father?

Diego sighed. I was afraid you might... tease a little, he confessed a second time.

Obviously contrite, Alejandro then said, I'm sorry. I don't mean to tease you about Victoria. But why in heaven's name haven't you done anything about her before now?

Because there were... complications... as well as her feelings to consider. I had some formidable competition, was all he said, referring to the recent and very public breakup she and Zorro had suffered, as Felipe smiled.

Zorro is formidable, Alejandro agreed. But why now?

Diego sighed again. He had expected this third degree, but had secretly hoped he would escape it. The truth seemed to be in order again. Because now she's open to the idea of a courtship.

Victoria? But how do you know?

I asked her. Diego stared at his father then. Now, are you finished with all your questions?

Alejandro pointed at himself, as if to ask Who? Me? Yes, I'm finished. And to prove his point, he headed to his room without another word.

Thirty minutes later, a much cleaner and refreshed Alejandro appeared again in the library just in time to see Felipe beat Diego.

Checkmate. He's beaten me again, Diego said lightly. No one would ever know from his calm behavior that he was still shaking inside. He stood to go.

Alejandro laughed. Perhaps your mind isn't on your game. Perhaps it's on a certain seņorita.

Diego made a great show of looking irritated. Father, you promised not to tease, he reminded.

No, you promised. I prevaricated, Alejandro responded.

Diego rolled his eyes at the technicality and pulled his pocket watch from his vest. It's time for me to pick up Victoria. I'll see you at the de Cristo's. And with that, he left by way of the front door.

Boy, did he have something to tell Victoria! He was almost thankful to his father for giving him something to talk about on the way to the de Cristo's hacienda. All his energy had gone into pleading his case with Victoria. He had no idea what they were going to discuss all night. He was more used to kissing Victoria when alone with her than talking to her.

He needn't have worried; they had plenty to talk about. They did discuss Alejandro's reaction a little on the road to the de Cristo hacienda, and Diego explained what had happened in such a humorous way that he had Victoria laughing about the whole incident instead of quailing, like he had done.

Oh, Diego! I didn't know you could be so funny!

Diego shook inside again, though he was turned to face her so he could take advantage of the dim light given off by the moon, the horse going on on its own. He mysteriously said, There's a lot of things about me that you don't know.

Suddenly contrite, Victoria apologized. I'm sorry, Diego. I didn't realize. I won't tease again.

You don't understand; I don't mind it if you tease me, only if my father teases me, Diego refuted.

But I still promise to be more careful, she said.

No, Diego shook his head. No promises.

If you insist.

I do.

You know, you're different tonight than you usually are in town. More sure of yourself, more forceful, she observed, and Diego started to get a little worried. Was this the way he would have to spend the rest of his life?

Different how? he asked instead of letting the worry consume him.

Well, she considered, you don't seem so shy.

I'm never shy around you, he quickly pointed out.

I guess I've only seen you in my tavern, where you don't see many women. But in town, you always seem so shy around women. Why is that?

Diego looked away, wishing he didn't have to bring up this subject so soon. But he wanted to be honest with her when he could. Because the women I see in town are always on the lookout for a husband.

And that's not you?

Diego laughed, sounding nervous. No! I have no desire to marry most of the women I meet. There, that was telling the truth without ruling her out of the picture.

Victoria shook her head, making her curls bounce. Diego was enchanted in spite of the topic under discussion. That's too bad. They don't know what they're missing, she postulated.

Diego was heartened to hear that she thought he was a good catch, but he didn't want to talk about this subject too much. It was dangerous.

At least it's not raining, she said next, noting by his nervous behavior that her companion preferred to talk about anything else.

Diego glanced up at the stars. This is true, and a less nerve-racking conversation than the last, but we're talking about the weather. Diego ended with a sound of puzzlement. Could she really think of nothing else to talk to him about?

A tiny pucker appeared between her brows. The moon was full enough for Diego to see it. We're talking about the weather?

You are. His heart was beating faster. He hoped she couldn't hear it; that didn't exactly fit with the indolent image most people, including her, had of him.

I hear that you have done some research on the night sky.

Diego chuckled again. Who'd you hear that from?

People in town. Sergeant Mendoza, she admitted. What have you studied?

The moon, constellations... he said, giving her the indication with his voice that he'd studied much more, which he had, on those clear nights when he was at home. He didn't tell her that those nightly study sessions usually ended with him thinking about her. Suddenly he was a bit uncomfortable, and turned around to face forward, glad that he hadn't asked a vaquero to drive them, glad that they were alone in the carriage. You know, Victoria, I haven't been completely honest with you about my intentions here.

What do you mean?

Well, he said hesitantly, wondering why he was telling her this at all, but he wanted her to know where he stood, for once in his life. He was sick of all the deception. My father has been... ribbing me lately, fairly heavily, about grandchildren. I'm not getting any younger with the passing years, either. With that in mind, I want to be sure you know that I consider this the beginning of a rather wonderful courtship.

Victoria was silent for a minute, while Diego internally berated himself for speaking at all, even if he was tired of the lies. At last she turned to him and said, I think that's a fine idea, Diego.

You don't mind?


Diego persisted, warning, We've been friends for a long time.

Don't you think it's better that way?

I do. But not everybody does. Some people prefer arrangements. He shuddered. I just don't want you to be bothered by anybody over this.

She laughed then, a light chuckle that poured from her before she could stop it. Then you have to be more careful about who you're talking in front of. Colita Perķn was in the tavern that day you asked me what I thought about courtships.

He'd heard of her, but still didn't understand. She was? So?

So? Victoria asked, askance. She's only the biggest gossip in the pueblo, that's what. The entire town knew what I thought by that night. But that's all right with me. She ended softly, like she was confessing something of huge import.

Perhaps she was. Diego couldn't help himself; he smiled. When he had better control of his facial features, he said, I'm sorry about putting you on the spot like that.

Why? I'm not.

Diego didn't quite know what to do with such honesty. I just wanted you to know how everything stands.

Thank you for your honesty. That's a new thing for me.

Her words fell like thunder on him. He'd never been under such self-imposed pressure to tell her everything before. It's a relief to be honest, if you want to know the truth, was what he finally said.

You? You're always honest, aren't you? she asked.

Diego laughed again, an explosion of air straight from his chest. Oh, I've lied in the past, he said, hedging a bit.

Is this one of those things you meant when you said you have some kind of mysterious past?

Diego evaded like the pro he was, That's some of it.

But you seem so normal, she argued softly.

He turned towards her again. I'm not as normal as I appear. Are you?

She acted disappointed in herself. Yes. I'm just a plain old inn keeper.

Suddenly feeling more romantic, Diego risked exposure again when he passionately refuted, There's nothing plain about you, Victoria.

He never found out what her answer to that comment might be, for they quite suddenly arrived at the de Cristo's hacienda, looming out of the night at them like a wraith, and the conversation, as charming as it had been, was at an end.

* * *

Once inside, it became quickly clear to Diego that he was glad he'd brought Victoria along; unlike most men in the pueblo, he valued her ideas and spirited conversation, in spite of the teasing he received from some of the older attendees.

Don Diego! exclaimed Don Emilio immediately. When I saw your father arrive by himself, I worried that you might be ill. But that's not the case at all, since you brought somebody with you. Seņorita Escalante! How charming to see you in another capacity besides a tavern owner! Welcome, welcome!

Don Emilio, how pleasant to be here! Victoria responded, though Diego could tell she was angry about something already by the snap of fire in her eyes.

What's wrong? he asked the minute they finished greeting their host and his rather rotund wife and they were alone in a little corner of the main room.

Finally able to be herself and admit her anger, she said, Don Emilio! He had other things than tavern owners on his mind just now. He was commenting about my serving duties, and low class status, too.

I doubt that, Diego said, a glass of water poured specifically for him clutched in his hand. He's not thoughtful enough to say anything underhanded like that. His wife, now... Everybody in the pueblo knew that Doņa Carrina was the second biggest gossip around, second only to Seņorita Colita, apparently.

Are you referring to Doņa Carrina? I don't know her, Victoria imparted, while her half glass of white wine was dangerously close to becoming empty, since she'd drunk most of it in her anger. Diego carefully took it from her hand, not wanting a drunk tavern owner to contend with.

Perhaps I should take this while you 'discover' your anger. You want to save enough for dinner, after all. He set the glass on a convenient table nearby. There were already two other glasses reposing on the little table. Diego wondered who they belonged to as he also replied to Victoria's comment. To answer your statement, yes, I was referring to the charming Doņa Carrina, who rarely leaves the hacienda, so I'm not surprised that she has never been to the tavern and you don't know her. Most of her visitors come to her, I've heard.

Victoria let Diego take her wine from her, admitting that it was probably for the best if she didn't get drunk, but thought that the action took a lot of nerve at the same time. Why? Does she not like my clientele, or is she too..?

.. big? finished Diego in a soft voice.

Victoria nodded.

Diego chuckled, the loudest laugh he dared in the crowded room. I think the latter is the main reason, he said softly, while looking around at the other guests, but no one was paying a bit of attention to them.

Aaah, Victoria intoned slowly, understanding. I wondered. Casually, she picked up her glass again and took a drink, just to show her independence, even while Diego looked on in mild disapproval. Finally, she giggled. Don't worry, Diego. I know what wine can do to a person. I do run a tavern, you know. I plan to drink water at dinner. But I do like watching you watch me while you wonder if I'm getting a bit tipsy.

Diego smiled, amused at her reasoning. It does ruin the best of people, he commented then.

Am I the best of people? she asked, perfectly serious in her question.

Diego was surprised. I consider you so. What do you mean?

I mean that I'm not quite of your station, she acknowledged, direct as always. I'm perfectly aware that a tavern owner couldn't even be here if we were in Spain.

We've always been on equal footing, Diego, stunned at her concern, said. Just think of all the parties you've been to at our hacienda, he suggested.

I know, she admitted. And I'm always glad of the invitation. But I thought it was from a sense of obligation more than from equality, she noted quietly.

That comment surprised Diego as well. Do you? That's not the case, I can assure you, he said soothingly. Here in the colonies we can pretty much do what we want.

Interested, Victoria's brow puckered. Diego secretly loved the sudden change in her features, as much as he'd loved her anger. Do you think that's true? The classes definitely mix well in the tavern, but I thought that was from a sense of drinking comradery more than from equality.

If an invitation is from only necessity, it's not on my part, Diego assured again, taking a drink of his own water as he spoke. But you're the expert on such things, not I. What do you think?

Surprised herself, as if she was rarely asked her opinion on such matters, she hesitantly said, I'm not sure what to think, but behavior is definitely different in the colonies than in the motherland.

Sounds like it would make a good editorial, Diego commented casually, and Victoria laughed.

Always the editor. Well, a topic like behavior sure makes a person think, Victoria said, glad that she had brought up a new subject for him in the process of her 'thinking.' The classes would do well to mix a little more, if you want my opinion, Victoria muttered under her breath.

Diego quietly replied, I think so, too.

A bell sounded then, its tinkling cutting off their intriguing though dangerous discussion.

Diego found that he was a little sorry. He already missed the friendliness of the private conversation. Aloud, he said, Supper, indicating the way to the dining room with a wave of his hand, though he would have liked to know more of what Victoria thought on behavior in the colonies. He offered his hand to Victoria. The dining room's this way. I'll lead you in.

Unused to such elegancies from her friend, Victoria took the offered hand somewhat hesitantly. I'm glad we agree, was all she said.

Me, too, Diego intoned lightly as he led her to the dining room, making way gallantly at the last minute for Doņa Carrina.

So far, the evening was turning out exactly as he'd predicted. Most of the guests seated around the table were of the older variety, and they expounded on cattle prices throughout a very boring dinner. Brandy and coffee were announced as an after-dinner treat, and, finding himself at loose ends since Victoria had followed the ladies into the sitting room, Diego took his coffee outside to the garden that every hacienda automatically showcased, intending to indulge in some indecent thoughts of his companion for a few minutes. He expected to be alone, surrounded by the plants, and had looked forward to the time apart from the other guests, but was delighted to find Victoria also taking the evening air. Victoria! I thought you had gone into the sitting room with the other ladies.

She turned, brought back to Earth from her examination of the garden and the stars. I'm sorry if it offends you, Diego, but if I heard one more comment on cattle prices or children, I might have gone insane. I thought a turn in the night air would help restore my good humor.

He chuckled. I'm not offended, Diego reassured. It's a fairly dull party; remember, I warned you. And if it restores your humor, by all means, take what time you need. Oh, I have some coffee if you want to share.

Hmm, coffee. Sounds like just the thing, she commented, prior to grabbing the cup right out of his hand and taking a cautious sip.

Careful. It's hot, warned Diego.

Victoria blew out a breath of air before returning the cup to him just as casually as she had taken it. You aren't kidding! It is hot.

Told you. Diego slowly sauntered around the garden, very aware of her feminine presence even if he couldn't comment on it. Ursa Major is especially bright tonight, Diego told her. He could see the tail end of the constellation in question, bright in the night sky, even with the light beaming into the garden from the party.

Victoria looked up, and Diego secretly admired the way her neck curved with the action. For the first time he wondered if courting her wasn't the best of choices he might have made; he wasn't sure he could stay in control of himself. Ursa Major? she asked.

Oh, you might know it better as the Big Dipper, said Diego, taking a drink of coffee from the opposite side of the cup that Victoria had drunk from. The hot liquid tasted good, even if it burned his tongue. He blew on it, cooling it off so it wouldn't burn her when next she took a drink.

Victoria noticed the action, but chose not to comment. She'd never had anybody care for her so... solicitously... before. She didn't know what to think of such a display.

If it was one of the cooler months, I could point out Orion, Diego said, just to keep the conversation, which he found extremely interesting, from ending.

Victoria grimaced, a face that Diego noticed even in the sparse light in the garden. What is it about men and Orion?

What do you mean? asked Diego.

Victoria continued, I mean that practically every man I've ever encountered has been sure to show me Orion. I've known about that constellation since I was fourteen.

Diego laughed quietly. I don't know the draw to that particular constellation, but I'll be sure to avoid mentioning it in the coming months. Again he looked up.

That would be a big relief! laughed Victoria.

His head still pointed up, Diego softly said, You never told me you've been seeing men since you were fourteen. Isn't that a bit young?

Victoria was surprised. Thinking he was still commenting on the mixing of the classes and what people think of each other, she blurted, Who told you that?

Diego looked at her. You did. Just now.

I did? Victoria appeared unconvinced, then she appeared irritated. If you must know, I haven't been 'seeing men' since fourteen, I was nineteen, and it was my brothers who first told me about Orion.

Diego had the graciousness to be slightly embarrassed. My apologies, Victoria. What I said wasn't meant to be a comment on your personal life. But I didn't think of your parents as that nuevo. It's just that I like being concerned about you, and fourteen is a bit young to start seeing men. Diego wondered where he got his courage from. It was a very personal thing for him to say, yet he said it so easily, the words tripping over his tongue like he said such things every day. He didn't think that he did say such graceful things all the time, as Zorro, and to her. But at least now he knew that he'd been her first love, since she had imparted that she'd been nineteen at the time of her first encounter with a man, and that was right when Zorro appeared.

Victoria blushed, her face an enchanting deep red hue. Thank you. Concern for someone else is new to me, as well. And I like being concerned about you, too, she ended on a quiet breath.

Surprised, Diego looked at her, which was his first mistake of the night. He shouldn't have been too aware of her, lest he give himself away. But he was too amazed by her comment not to look, and their eyes met over the vines and blooms littering the de Cristo's garden.

Sparks flew as they continued to look, each delving deep into the other's soul, for everyone knew that the eye was the window to the soul. Diego hoped that he wasn't displaying his emotions too plainly for her to see, even as he was swallowed up by her dark lashes, watching the sensations she was feeling roil uncontrollably not far behind. Diego saw confusion, warmth, and something else there, hidden from view to all but the luckiest of people. Diego was one of the lucky few, but Victoria was the first to look away.

Astonished that they could still have such a volatile reaction to each other even after all these years, Diego nonetheless found himself clearing his throat as if nothing had happened. He blandly took a drink from the cup in his hands, and burned his tongue again for his pains to appear nonchalant, but his heart thudded against his ribs. He hoped Victoria couldn't hear it, but one thing was sure; they shouldn't be alone again for the rest of the night.

Seeming to echo his sentiments, Victoria said, I think it's time to rejoin the others. I don't want them to think we're snobs.

Was she flirting after that electrified look? We could never be snobs, Diego had the composure to say. Or, at least, I'm not.

She hit him on the arm with her fan. Very funny! Victoria commented, though the tone of her voice indicated that she didn't think he was funny at all. She thought he was something else. Just for that comment, I think I'll take another drink of coffee before we go in.

The liquid sloshed a bit as he said, Careful, it's...

... hot! she finished for him on a laugh, and they entered the hacienda together, much lighter in mood than a few moments before.

* * *

Diego didn't see Victoria again for several days, while he stared at her back in church service, unbeknownst to her, leaving her wondering if he was going to contact her again at all. It was the worst part of a courtship, the not knowing. Even if the night had ended with Victoria comfortable enough to return the gesture of an arm around his waist in a more-than-friendly way when Diego propped her up after stumbling as they said their goodbyes to the de Cristos an hour after their talk, she refused to assume anything. Assuming information was for the uninitiated. Victoria was neither young nor unitiated. Though, as searing as the hold had been for Diego, he was not prepared for the heat wave that hit Los Angeles and the surrounding area. But it was the heat that prompted Diego's second get-together with Victoria, so he couldn't be too disgusted with it.

Diego left Victoria alone after the de Cristo's party, not wanting her to think he was too desperate, though he spent what time he could at the tavern, keeping at least one eye on her all the time, his shirt sleeves rolled to his elbows, his coat left in the closet, his mind on her beautiful eyes. It was getting harder to hide the true depths of his feelings from her.

It was the following Tuesday. Victoria still seemed to accept the idea of a courtship, but Diego wanted to tread carefully. However, he knew that if he wasted too much time, the possible outcome would melt, in a manner of speaking.

In something of a hurry, Diego brushed around the patrons trying to get cool in the tavern. He scanned the room for Victoria, then found her serving enchiladas to Sergeant Mendoza. Quickly, he hurried over.

Victoria, I'm glad I found you, Diego commented as his opening.

She looked at the flushed face of the caballero that she'd known all her life, and noticed how the color red suited him. She didn't think she'd ever seen him flushed before. Or so excited. What is it? Has something happened? He'd grown to become more open around her ever since the night of the de Cristo's party, but even he was still closed enough that he practically shouted when something was going on.

Diego smiled, amused at his apparent haste and subsequent behavior. No, it's nothing like that. It's just that our cook, Maria, convinced the vaqueros to take the afternoon off from the pastures and make ice cream instead. Would you like some? It might still be cool if we head straight home.

Her shocked expression admirably gave away her first thoughts. For some reason, another get-together, even an impromptu one, was not what she expected. What's that?

Iced cream and salt, mixed together until it forms a hard substance called ice cream, Diego tried to explain quickly. We keep it cold with ice. We perfected the invention only two years ago.

A puzzled expression settled on her face, but she nodded then, her hand moving to the tie of her apron. Yes! The idea of something cool is almost too much. Just let me get my horse.

Excellent! I'll be out front.

They ate the soft, vanilla ice cream right out of the bucket, as it was too melted to dish into bowls by the time they reached the hacienda. Diego apologized, but Victoria was simply ecstatic to have something cool. The ice cream tasted so sweet that dinner did not require any dessert. Victoria unexpectedly stayed for that dinner, and hers and Diego's impulsive, light, and fun conversation continued through the meal and during the ride back to the tavern. They purposely kept the topics unimportant, but the meeting of the eyes happened again, right when Diego released Victoria in front of the tavern. Again, sparks flew. She had balanced a dish of the vanilla concoction for Mendoza on her saddlehorn on the way back, and used that as an excuse for her escape. Though it went against the inclinations of his thudding heart, Diego let her go. By the next day it was official to the pueblo that Don Diego was courting the tavern owner.

It was church service on Sunday that brought the two of them together before the eyes of the town. Diego had escorted a properly shrouded Victoria into the building, but since men and women sat on different sides of the church, not mixing, he released her once inside to find a seat by herself. He scooted in next to Felipe on the aisle.

But the homily that Padre Benitez gave encouraged something different.

The Padre began, As I was sitting in my quarters, silently pondering the situation in our established though secluded church, I came to wondering about the practice of separating by gender. The priest paused, aware that what he was about to suggest could be dangerously new to his parishioners, and he was careful to point out, It is a good idea on the whole to encourage undisturbed contemplation, but I have to wonder if it's a good thing for our community. We are so set in our ways of thinking here in Los Angeles. I came to the conclusion that we should try mixing, just for a few weeks, to see if it makes any difference.

Then he was silent as his unusual request filtered in and was digested by his congregation. Nobody moved as they all sat in stunned disbelief.

Come on. We aren't getting any younger, you know, Padre Benitez said encouragingly.

Suddenly Diego looked to Victoria as he heard a slightly different version of her own words quoted again to him. He knew where she was sitting, farther forwards, towards the altar, than his family, and she turned around to face him, gazing unblinking out of solemn eyes. Just as suddenly, she smiled, warmly, the endearment creeping over her features. It was then that Diego knew she had spoken to the padre sometime during the hot week and was indirectly responsible for this revolutionary action.

He leaned forward, amused, and let the smile of suspicion light his face. It amazed him that she would go to so much trouble just to spend more time with him. For he knew that this mixing was really a trick to get him next to her. He could hardly be angry with her for speaking out in defense of mixing when he would receive such a sweet reward in the end. Of course, she had to know that he wouldn't be angry at all.

A smile of amusement still on his face, he was the first to move as he rose and walked in what he hoped was a nonchalant way across the aisle to her waiting pew. He sat down next to her on the bench. Did you do this? he half asked, half accused.

Victoria smiled enigmatically. Let's just say that after last week, I had a few words with the padre.

I'm sure that made his day, commented Diego under his breath, thinking that such an encounter would surely make his day. And he wasn't disappointed as Victoria suddenly took his hand in her own. He glanced down at his hand snuggled with hers, and would have sweated even if it wasn't already very hot. She gave his hand a slight squeeze, astonishing him even more, though he endeavored not to show it on his face.

The church service, despite its rather shocking beginning, was a big success. Several couples sat together, as did many families, and Diego was glad for the opportunity to spend some unexpected time with Victoria, even if it was in church and they couldn't do much talking. They made up for it the next day as he explained the Latin mass to her, perfectly at ease with her in her kitchen. Victoria cooked while Diego clarified what all the strange phrases meant. Maria, Victoria's helper for the day, came and went, keeping an eye on the couple, acting as their unofficial chaperon.

They needed a chaperon, Diego knew, to make certain everything was done in the proper way, even if he chafed at the interference. It was hard to spend time together when they were constantly watched, but Diego worried more about her reputation, having no intention of sullying her good name just because he was impatient. Victoria may not care overly much about her reputation, but he cared, very much, and he refused to have other people look down on her because of the time they spent together.

And the time he spent with her was quickly evolving into something else, if Diego could judge by his soft, romantic emotions. Finally, after two weeks of courting her, taking her places, seeing her everywhere he turned, loving her from behind his eyes, he could bear the strain of his affections no longer, even though he had done it for years as Zorro, and sought her out at the tavern. It was a Wednesday, inoffensive and uneventful, but it was soon to become everything to them.

Victoria, I'm glad I caught you before the noon rush, Diego said as he entered the busy establishment and leaned against the bar.

Diego, she said, sounding delighted at his sudden appearance. The delight was new, and it warmed his heart. I didn't expect to see you in here today.

Diego was a bit confused. You see me in the tavern every day, he argued softly, his head propped up on his hand on the bar.

Victoria smiled. But I don't see you, if you know what I mean. She continued to prepare the plate of bread that she was intent on making, her attention now divided between the plate and him.

He grinned at her admittance. I won't take up too much of your time, he promised.

Did you want something?

Nothing besides conversation, he assured.

She replied somewhat flirtatiously, And I was hoping for so much more.

He laughed a little nervously at her directness, then decided to be direct himself. I'm sure this won't disappoint you.

Suddenly more serious, she asked, You have something to tell me?

He nodded, I do, but I don't want you to worry.

I can meet you sometime at siesta, but probably not any sooner, she responded regretfully.

He perfunctorily glanced around to make sure no one was listening. I don't want to be overheard when we talk this time. How about meeting me at siesta in The Guardian office? We won't be disturbed there.

She concentrated on the plate she was fixing, but raised her eyebrows to him. Don't want to be disturbed? Sounds mysterious.

And important, but again, don't worry. He assured her as best he could. Then, before he had a chance to say adios, their eyes met a third time, and while everybody in the tavern watched, he touched her cheek with his fingertips in the most gentle caress he could, almost overcome with emotion. He stared at her, his blue eyes drinking her in, thinking that it had been a long time since he'd felt her against him, and he let his passion shine through in his eyes. Victoria saw it all, even as she leaned into the caress, and responded by laying her cheek on his hand full length, rubbing his palm just as gently. Her sigh echoed through the suddenly silent tavern, and no one had to wonder what she thought of him.

Diego walked out as if through a fog, strolling out as effortlessly as possible, calling a soft, but broken, See you around two, before he left.

Victoria nodded slowly, indicating that she had heard him, but didn't say anything more, too overcome to talk. It might be Diego instead of Zorro courting her, but even Diego could be successful, she ruminated, a hand unconsciously rubbing her cheek where he had touched her.

The two o'clock beginning of siesta time came and went while Diego busied himself with editing new articles for the newspaper and Victoria cleaned up her kitchen. Wondering what Diego could possibly have to tell her, she left by her back door at two-fifteen, carefully balancing two bowls of flan and two spoons in her hands as she made her short way over to the newspaper office unmolested. The sleepy town was too... well, sleepy to give her much notice.

Diego heard her mount the steps of the office, a hot breeze pushed her through the open door, and he looked up to see her. Flan! he exclaimed in delight. My favorite. He immediately took the bowls from her and set them on his desk. He attacked the food in one bowl, leaving the other for her.

I know, she said. Remember that time when we were children and you...

... ate an entire pan of it put aside for a party. Yes. Diego couldn't stop himself as he spooned the sweet dessert out of the bowl and into his waiting mouth, remembering. Mother and Father told the story with great humor, but they weren't amused when they discovered the empty pan

And you were so sick, you didn't deserve the whipping Don Alejandro felt you had to have, she recalled, spooning her own flan hungrily. She had forgotten to eat lunch again that day.

Oh, I deserved it, I just didn't want it, Diego said in honesty.

I don't know about that, she said liltingly, just as sincere. Now, what did you want to talk about?

This was it. With that seemingly innocent question, the time to tell her of his feelings was upon him. Slowly, Diego lowered his partially eaten bowl to the desk, then carefully took her bowl from her hand and moved around her to close the door, even though that made it almost unbearably stuffy in the tiny office. The window was already closed, shutting out the breeze as well as prying ears.

I was right; this is serious, Victoria said, hoping that he wasn't going to tell her that he'd gotten in trouble for last week's editorial on class mixing.

He didn't deceive her. No, you are right. This is as important as it gets. Well, almost. He supposed telling her of Zorro's identity would be equally important. Diego took a seat on the edge of the desk, careful not to sit on either bowl, and took her hands in his as well as a deep breath for courage. Victoria, he began after clearing his throat, suddenly nervous. He took another deep breath. We've only been... together... for about two weeks, but they've been the best two weeks of my life. I've never been so happy, so content.

Neither have I, she assured, frightened by his serious tone in spite of his admonishment not to be.

But every time I look at you, I die of guilt, he admitted, his head hanging down already in anticipation of the confession. He couldn't meet her gaze. And I don't want you to go through life not knowing how it really is.

In spite of her blood already freezing at the words he'd said, she squeezed his hand. You can tell me. You don't have to be afraid.

Determined to tell part of the truth, he glanced up at her, a look of trepidation on his handsome features. I wasn't completely honest with you even when I said I was being completely honest with you, he said, hurried, all in one breath.

What? Confusion met his gaze, and he couldn't stand to make her uncomfortable like that.

Her expression gave him the courage to admit, I've been in love with you since I came home from Spain and saved you after you dumped lemonade on that soldier. He glanced up again, risking her displeasure with the look. But he had to know what she was thinking.

Her eyes were wide, and full of disbelief at first. Then they softened, and she hung her own head when she whispered, Oh, Diego, I know how it is. I thought I was going crazy. But I've been fighting off loving you, too, even though it's too soon, and you probably think I'm some kind of harlot to be saying this. But there are times, bad times, when I want to hold you and kiss you until you can't see straight, and I know that my thoughts will shock such a decent person as you...

He interrupted, I'm not shocked, even as his heart thudded noisily again in his chest at her admission. They were slowly gravitating quite close together, he noted dispassionately, and his eyes were drawn against his will to her red lips. He felt dizzy, as if he was watching the scene from above. With all the self-control he could muster, he bent down to her waiting, uplifted, expectant face, and kissed her as gently as he could, one hand on her cheek and one hand on her shoulder.

Gentle be damned; an explosion of desire quickly erupted in both of them the minute his lips touched hers.

Victoria opened her lips in clear invitation, twisting her tongue around his, oblivious to the fact that they were sitting right in front of the window, which while closed, afforded a good view of the proceedings in the office. By evening, the news of this 'secret' meeting would be all over town. But they didn't know, and were helpless against the onslaught of their combined emotions.

Diego responded before he could help himself, running the hand that was on her shoulder up and under her hair, kneading the back of her neck as he knew she liked it. It had been a long time since he had touched her, even as Zorro. With his hand on her neck, he pulled her closer, suddenly desperate to display the depth of his emotions to her. Heart thundering in his ears, he cradled her head and felt her answering ardor.

Victoria responded instantly to his movement, deepening the kiss, desperate herself. In the frenzy of the moment, she didn't recognize his kiss as one coming from the man known as Zorro. She simply slid her lips over his smooth cheek, brushing the flaming skin that she was precipitously in love with, then claimed his mouth again with hers, easily communicating her emotions through such a gesture.

Desire sprung anew until an amount of sense returned to Diego. No. We have to stop, he whispered, though according to the expression on his face, he wanted to continue even in the tiny office.

Both were panting heavily, their combined inhalations reverberating loudly against the walls. Diego stood, now unable to mention that one look at her lovely face, and he had changed his foggy mind. Without quite knowing how he had gotten into such a position, he found himself with Victoria, backed into a shadowy corner, all thoughts of his editorial duties, any duties, forced from his mind. For the first time he considered himself a man who might take improper advantage of a lady.

Mind reeling, thought impossible, Diego answered Victoria's need to expound on her emotions even more. He kissed her everywhere, drunk with the sudden freedom of loving her in the open, consumed with his unexpected desire. He was not acting like the chivalrous man his father had brought him up to be, and he discovered that he didn't care.

Overcome herself, Victoria could only respond and cling to him tightly, kissing his exposed forehead, his cheeks, his chin, his chest. Diego moaned aloud.

Panting, trying to draw a deep enough breath, Victoria whispered, It's siesta. We'll have the tavern to ourselves. She arched her neck against him, desperate again just to feel him.

Diego was helpless. You go first, he whispered back. No one will think twice about seeing you in your own tavern. But he couldn't release her even long enough for her to reach her tavern. Clinging to each other's hand, and guiltily excited about the immediate future and what they planned to do, they crept cautiously across the outskirts of the plaza to the tavern's back door. Luckily, everybody was asleep and no one saw them skitter through the dust. The minute the door was closed against the sunshine and prying eyes, they were in each other's arms, hands on heads, pushing in their desperation to consummate such strong love, even if they weren't married, even if their forefathers and the church forbade it, even against their own common sense.

Victoria's fingers moved to the buttonholes on his shirt, and he helped by pulling the shirt out of his trousers, freeing the shirttails even as she freed the buttons from their precisely sewn holes. Once released, Victoria ran her hands over a surprisingly muscular chest, her fingertips making his skin tingle.

Going quickly up the stairs in the main room and around the balcony, they were in the privacy of Victoria's quarters before they knew it. Wanting to touch what she had uknowingly wanted to touch for years, Victoria yanked the caballero shirt off and threw it to the side. He tossed his head back and closed his eyes to feel the pass of her fingertips across his stomach. Then his lips were on hers again, demanding fulfillment, and he swung her door shut discreetly with his foot.

From beginning to end, the act took ten minutes, then it was over. Their following conversation took much longer than their actual lovemaking had. But by now Diego felt warm and relaxed and content as they stared at each other, too astonished at what they had just done to speak. The white sheet she was using on her bed lay curled over them, bundled under their arms even though it was hot outside. The blanket lay on the floor, pushed aside in their haste to make better use of the bed than she did every night. Once again propped up on his elbow, and mirrored by her, Diego was the first to speak.

He brushed her hair back with his finger, still staring, feeling the love swell in his heart. I'm sorry. That wasn't supposed to happen, but know that I love you even more now, if that's possible. He kissed her helplessly on her forehead.

I've been thinking of making love with you since that ridiculous party at the de Cristo's, Victoria whispered back without taking her eyes from his face, awed into a hushed voice. You're so real and wonderful.

Diego stretched. I feel wonderful. Better than I've felt in a long time.

Even if what we did was wrong?

That got his attention. Slowly, still thinking about it, and remembering, he said, I can't think of making love to you as wrong. Clumsy, yes, and painful and beautiful, but never wrong. He combed through her hair with his fingers again. His and Victoria's lovemaking had been so much better than anything he had imagined before, more inexpert, like he said, more painful, more intense, and more exquisite because of it. You're so beautiful, he whispered, overcome himself.

Shrouded by her curls, housed in sweat, Victoria had the decency to blush a very becoming shade of magenta, but all it did was rouse Diego's passions again. Her eyes unwavering, she whispered back, Thank you. Though making love was a bit... unexpected.

I had no intentions or ulterior motives, you know. I was just too... He stopped, unable to describe what he had felt at the time.

She interrupted. ... overpowered with emotion?

Yes. His finger then brushed her cheek as he stretched again. Now I feel lazy and wonderful. Too wonderful to return home.

Then don't, she suggested.

She was always proposing that. And for once he could stay, though he knew he would have to return home eventually. He sighed, a tired smile curving up the ends of his mouth. Feeling torpid and sanguine, he never would have expected what she said next.

Stay and marry me.

He reacted incredulously, and amazed. What?

She persisted, I want to be with you, always.

He shook his head. That's not why I made love to you, to convince you to...

Sleepily, lethargically, she said, I know. Then she repeated, Marry me.

It's only been a few weeks, he protested, but found himself feeling swayed by emotion.

Victoria nodded, and went on, I know that, too. Still, if you know, you know. And I know. She slipped her own hand against his cheek then. It feels like I've known forever.

Diego was awed at how right she felt, all bundled up against him in that hot, small bed. But he wanted to resist her wild idea for awhile, play the devil's advocate with her, support a stronger understanding between them. On the other hand, not for the first time, he considered telling her everything, applying to her love to accept that which she wouldn't otherwise accept. The thought made his heart pound even harder. Don't you want to know me a little better before you make up your mind?

But Victoria was merciless. I already know my mind.

But what if I turn out to be the scourge of the pueblo?

Guile free, she said at once, Impossible.

Suddenly guilty, but wanting nothing more than to stop holding back, Diego said, I could be your hero for all you know.

Victoria caressed his cheek again. You already are.

Diego let his head fall against his arm, into the pillow, surrounded by support as he deliberated the decision suddenly thrust upon him. Should he tell her? She might not accept him at all, but react in anger that he hadn't told her before now. She could be furious for the painful 'breakup' he'd forced her through, she might be determined to hate him for the rest of their lives, and deny him the attention he so acutely sought.

But she deserved to know the truth, especially now. He propped himself up again, took a deep breath, and whispered, Maybe you don't know me as well as you think you do.

She kissed him slowly, making him smile at the rush of emotion he felt. You're my best friend. How could I not know you well enough to know that I want to marry you?

He chuckled, a rumble that came from deep in his chest. You may not want to marry me soon. I could be leading a secret life.

But Victoria shook her head again, adamant. I don't believe it.

She refused to listen to him. Perhaps now was the correct time to divulge everything. If she wanted to change her mind, she needed all the information to do it. Finally, for better or worse, he made his decision. You have my mother's ring, he whispered, sharing his identity with her.

For a moment, she just stared. Then, as expected, her face blanched. Her labored breathing sounded harsh on the plain adobe walls. She sat up quickly, taking the tumbled sheet with her, and turned away from him, stunned.

Diego felt that he would be allowed to speak now that the first shock had worn off. Victoria, I never meant to deceive you like this. I also never meant for the deception to go on this long.

Her back to him, exposing the smooth skin to his probing fingers, she suddenly shook.

Worried, he asked, Victoria, what's wrong? When she didn't answer, added, Please talk to me.

She turned around so that he could see her face, and he didn't expect to encounter her extreme laughter.

Exasperated and terrified, Diego persisted now that the decision had been made. What is it? What are you thinking?

She tumbled back to the bed, still laughing, lost in her own private hilarity of the situation. At long last her laughter died away and she was able to speak. Oh, Diego! Then more laughter cut her off.

Hesitantly, he touched her arm. I must admit that amusement wasn't among the responses I anticipated.

Choking, she calmed enough to say, And I'm sure you anticipated many.

Of course I did, he answered, thinking that such a statement probably wouldn't hurt him at this point.

See, I do know you well enough to expect that, she insisted until her amusement stopped altogether. Finally, taking a deep breath, she explained, You have no idea how much guilt I've been under lately.

Again, she had surprised him. Guilt?

Victoria nodded. Ever since you first began courting me. I am tired of waiting, but being courted by another man nearly made my hair stand on end with guilt, to say nothing of falling in love with you.

He vividly recalled the 'disagreement' she'd had with Zorro, and didn't understand. But if you wanted to see me as Zorro, all you had to do was...

She interjected, But now I can be free with you. I can wrap my arms around your waist, hold you...

Kiss me, Diego suggested.

The invitation wasn't lost on her, but she persisted. ... kiss you, show real affection, and the pueblo will only see Diego. More importantly, the Alcalde will only see Diego.

Comprehension hit him like his father's punishment had. He gazed at her in open admiration. Good thinking. Quietly, to himself, he marveled at how he'd been fooled, played like an instrument because of his emotions for her. Very clever. I didn't think of that.

You didn't think of a lot of things, Diego de la Vega, but especially you didn't consider the pueblo's interest in romance. Ours in particular. She smiled knowingly, nodded not at all innocently. That's why you need a female around. That's why you need me, to point out all those things you don't notice.

Diego was disbelieving. And I thought I had thought of everything.

You did think of everything, she insisted with a smile. Everything but me. Now, will you marry such a woman?

As you? Diego was surprised again by the question, though he shouldn't have been. He did know just how to answer her, though. Yes.

She kissed him then, a lazy meeting of their lips in anticipation of the coming future. And Zorro?

He's retired, Diego whispered, his breath stroking her face. I'm sure he won't mind.

Inside the tavern, two lives merged into one. Outside, the sun baked the adobe to hard clay and the quiet town continued to sleep.

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